SCA Heraldry

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January 4, 2020 by phicks2012

For those who do not know this, I do Heraldry in the SCA.

The SCA has its own College of Arms. We allow our members to document and register names that they will use in the course of their SCA activity, and to design and register devices (aka coats of arms) that they will also use and display.

The catch is that in order to be in keeping with the historical reenactment goals of the Society, these names and devices need to be “period” — or as much so as possible. While, technically, individuals can use whatever name, or display whatever arms they like, if they want to “register” and thus “protect” that name or that armory they have to be historically plausible and (as far as the artwork in concerned) drawn in a period, blazonable style. That means that non-period names and armory can be used, but will not be registered.

In order to assure this, and to guide people in creating period names and armory, a College of Heralds has evolved, and much as in the mundane world (at least as far as armory is concerned) the members of that college oversee the process by which names and armory are registered. A body of rules exists to guide them and to supply consistency to the process, and the heralds apply these rules when judging whether a name or piece of armory will be registered. They also do continuing research that can and does, over time, lead to rule changes and precedents.

In order to avoid duplication, and to make the names and armory items unique, no two registered items are allowed to be too similar to one another, and rules also exist to determine whether or not two items “conflict”. Any new submission is judged against every already registered item, thus assuring that there will never be two people with the same registered name or armory. Herald’s therefore review and conflict check all subissions before a ruling is made on whether or not they will be registered.

Most submitters do not understand these rules, and therefore must rely largely upon heralds to assist them in documenting their SCA Name and in designing armory — and in conflict checking it all. Some submitters may think the process arbitrary and even repressive — thwarting their artistic expression and creativity. This is not the goal, but if a submitter’s name or armorial design is too clearly modern and has no equivalent in period onomastics or heraldic design then it may well seem that way to the submitter.

Period-style names are usually easily documented by finding a dated (in period) reference to a particular name element in a particular culture or conpatible culture and time period. A period person living in our range of history and having a given name that is, say 9th century Gaelic combined with a byname or surname that is 17th century Mongolian would be highly, highly unlikely. A person bearing arms depicting a modern object not known in period (say, a clearly modern object or a specific breed of animal not known, or possibly not even existing, in period) would likewise be visually jolting. Modern artistic renderings can also be unacceptable in that true heraldic style tends to be very specific, and objects and creatures tend to be drawn in specific orientations and postures that allow them to be easily blazoned (described).

Most heralds will bend over backwards to help a submitter come up with a name and armory they love that also satisfies the rules, and those who do it well and have clients who are willing to be at least slightly flexible tend to be very successful at this. Often the final name or device will prove to be something the submitter actually likes better than what they started with, but of course this is not universally true.

If the submitter is doggedly determined to submit the exact made-up name of their on-line RPG character, or insists upon submitting a device featuring a tap dancing teletubby, they certainly can do so — and most heralds will sigh and send those items off, even knowing that they will be returned. However, unless someone else manages to document the name or finds a period example of the charge (in this case the teletubby) such things will never be registered in that form, because they do not comply with the rules and are obtrusively modern.

On the other side, there are, of course, people holding local heraldic offices who really do not know much about either the rules or the process, and who have been known to give bad advice like “you can’t register a unicorn/lion/phoenix/etc because they’re all taken”. There are also a very few local heralds who (tactfully put) are ill-suited for holding an office of any sort, and do not file their reports, provide their submitters with support and information, or send submissions off in any sort of timely fashion. Things like that can also (and in such cases justifiably) leave certain submitters disgruntled and frustrated with what they perceive to be “the process”.

Often such problems develop because a person has volunteered to hold a local herald’s office when he or she really knows nothing about the process and has little real interest in learning. But a local herald who (for whatever reason) is not competent or knowledgeable can easily ask for help, or send his or her client to someone else for assistance — especially these days when everyone is so interconnected via the internet and social media. As a result, there is really very little excuse to do nothing. Also, because money is involved in the form of submissions fees, a herald can get into real trouble if they accept and then hold back submissions.

With today’s instant communications, and easily available references, the process is far quicker than it once was, and for our Kingdom if all goes well can run its course in six months. Great names and stunning armory are still being registered monthly, to the usual delight of the submitters, and Heralds are getting better and better.

So (assuming you’re in the SCA) when someone mentions picking and registering a name and arms, don’t panic. The process isn’t perfect, but it really isn’t as bad as you might have heard. It really isn’t!!

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I am an active, outgoing person interested in all sorts of things and all sorts of people! I'm constantly discovering new interests, and expect that to continue right into the grave!

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